Liberty Island: New Web Site for Conservative Fiction?
July 20, 2014
You’ll have heard conservatives observe that the dominant culture in America is liberal. Mark Steyn talks about the left’s “long march through the institutions” (the schools, the churches, the movies), and suggests that it’s ultimately futile for conservatives to fight on the political battleground if we give up on the fight for the deeper culture, which our politics flow out of.
Publisher Adam Bellow wants to bring the fight to the culture. Toward that end, earlier this year he launched Liberty Island, a Web site or online literary magazine of fiction by and/or for the conservative counterculture.
Adam Bellow, apparently the son of novelist Saul Bellow, is a high-up editor at Harper Collins. Wikipedia and Acculturated imply that he has been instrumental in enabling some politically incorrect nonfiction books to see the light of day. He observes that conservatives have, in the last several decades, joined the fight and done a lot of good in nonfiction and related work (conservative books, radio, opinion journals or Web sites, think tanks), but thinks conservatives need to be more involved in creating the popular culture—especially write more fiction—and do more to enable conservative fiction writers who have been shut out by the politically correct establishment.
He lays out his case in a recent cover story for National Review, “Let Your Right Brain Run Free: For too long, conservatives have ceded the popular culture to the Left.” (Read the whole thing.)
It strikes me as a good idea (not that I’d know), though it’s not clear exactly what the vision is for this new site. Is it for conservative fiction or fiction by conservatives? Is the goal to encourage more conservatives to try their hand at the creative arts, to support existing conservative artists, or to create a community and give readers a place to find them? Is the project aimed at particular kinds of fiction?
Mark Judge at Acculturated (who says he is friends with Bellow and has contributed a story to Liberty Island) implies that Liberty Island is intended for overtly conservative or anti-liberal science fiction or other “pulp fiction”. Certainly the main page offers a lot of stories in genres like “thriller”, “horror”, “scifi”, and “dystopia”. On the other hand, Liberty Island also boasts several pieces of political humor or satire, such as the hilarious “Goldilocks and the Three Bears Coffee Co.”, as well as ordinary “contemporary” fiction, such as “Pica”, a thoughtful reflection (a “vignette”, perhaps, rather than a full short story) on loss and loneliness that arguably doesn’t have anything specifically conservative or anti-liberal in it.
In his National Review piece, Bellow focuses (both in his opening anecdotes and in the substance of his argument) on political correctness and its humorless enforcers.
By harnessing the passions of offended minorities to the power of social media, the Left has created a hurricane of politicized indignation that can be directed wherever it likes and levels everything it touches. Meanwhile the general response is the same as it was for me at Clarion: embarrassed silence and the fear of being targeted yourself.
If you think that’s hyperbolic, consider the case of Brendan Eich or (though the latter was later reversed). (The indispensable Mark Steyn had more thoughts on the occasion of Robertson’s suspension.) People can actually lose their careers these days over the equivalent of crimethink.
It seems possible that Bellow is primarily concerned with fighting this oppressive political correctness, whether by directly encouraging the creation of works that challenge it or by creating a parallel culture in which artists can survive who would otherwise have been destroyed upon transgressing some taboo.
His project also seems to be aimed at a long-term goal of creating what he calls a “feeder system”:
We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.
This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.
You may have some criticisms of the project at this point. For whatever it’s worth, Bellow may have already considered them:
Now let me address a few objections. To begin with, we are not talking about what is sometimes called “cause fiction,” or, more bluntly, literary propaganda. That is simply a right-wing version of socialist realism — the demand that the arts advance a particular social and political agenda. Such works are indeed being written on the right, but that is not what most conservatives are doing.
As the founder of Liberty Island, a website that publishes fiction by conservative authors, I have read a great deal of this material and can attest that yes, their stories and novels do have political themes. But these themes are not presented for the most part in a way that is preachy or subordinates the story to the “message.” Instead the authors craft dramatic situations and pick heroes and villains that serve more subtly to advance their point of view.
. . .
A more pragmatic objection might be that conservative writers shouldn’t ghettoize themselves. But this is how such things get off the ground. All literary and artistic movements begin among enthusiasts. The impressionists boldly displayed their own rejected works in a “salon of the refused.” The literary modernists had to publish their works through small journals and privately funded presses. Both movements needed a place to congregate in order to share ideas, debate one another’s work, hone an aesthetic, and work out new critical standards. Out of this creative ferment a number of talents arose whose appeal transcended the confines of this rarefied world.
The same applies in popular music: Chicago was the home of the blues, Nashville the capital of country-and-western, Seattle the progenitor of grunge. In each case, a passionate fan base provided early support to talented artists who eventually broke out and went mainstream.
The new conservative creators don’t have a Greenwich Village or Seattle grunge scene to nurture their journeyman efforts. They lack the patronage of wealthy individuals and must rely on passionate enthusiasts, especially now, while they are still developing their talent and building an audience. If we want conservative Steven Spielbergs or Stephen Kings — people who tell great stories but have a right-of-center sensibility and aren’t afraid to take on the liberal thought police — we have to identify them early and support them as they rise and learn their craft.
For whatever it’s worth, Liberty Island’s own about page does use the words “conservative” and “libertarian” (mostly referring to the readers), but the page about becoming a contributing writer suggests that it might be open to anyone “whose work meets our standard of . . . ideological independence”. For whatever it’s worth, Bellow told an interviewer at PJ Media that liberal writers are welcome to apply: “Liberty Island welcomes any writer—and any reader—right or left—who values freedom and American ideals and thinks those things are worth defending.”
Meanwhile Jonah Goldberg argues that conservatives, in our pessimism, fail to see that the cultural glass is also half full. After mentioning both Liberty Island and Dinesh D’Souza’s new movie (America: Imagine the World without Her—I’ve seen it, I recommend it), Goldberg says,
I wish them great success. Still, I think there’s something missing in this ancient conversation on the right . . . . Conservatives refuse to celebrate, or even notice, how much of the popular culture is on their side.
He may have a point. (Hollywood has made at least one movie about prolonged adolescence; liberals have complained that Argo and other movies seemed surprisingly conservative.) He also gets in a good line.
One explanation is that while it is true that culture is upstream from politics, reality and, I would argue, morality are upstream from culture.
(I see that I’m not the first to mention Goldberg in connection with Bellow; Abby Schachter at Acculturated beat me to it.)
I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Bellow’s project; feel free to comment below.